TORONTO – Anti-poverty activists gathered Thursday for a rally demanding an increase to welfare rates, before marching to an Ontario government building to protest the elimination of the Special Diet Allowance by the McGuinty Liberals.

Addressing roughly 800 people assembled in the afternoon sunshine at Allan Gardens, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) organizer John Clarke accused the Liberals of being vicious and criticized Dalton McGuinty for making people poorer than they were under former premier Mike Harris.

“Today people would need a 55 per cent increase in social assistance rates to bring them back to the level they were at when Mike Harris cut social assistance in the 90’s,” said Clarke. “McGuinty has not overturned or reversed the Common Sense Revolution. He has consolidated and deepened it.”

Clarke said the only way that people could pay their rent and still eat properly was through the Special Diet Allowance, an additional payment of up to $250 per month. So in 2005, OCAP started holding clinics to help people apply for the benefit.

A single person on OW receives $585 per month, $1042 on ODSP, yet a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto can’t be found for less than $800 per month.

But only three months after the Auditor General denounced the government for massive overpayments under the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW), the Finance Minister announced at the end of March that the Special Diet Allowance would be eliminated and replaced with a nutritional supplement program administered by the Ministry of Health.




Click here to see photos from the rally and march




The government has also pledged to increase welfare rates by only one per cent by the end of year. “That’s a slap in the face,” said Amina Ali of the OCAP Women of Etobicoke. “We have to build a movement to demand an income free of poverty.”

In 2003, poor people were receiving $6 million dollars a year through the Special Diet Allowance. By 2009, that figure had climbed to more than $200 million dollars.

On Thursday, anti-poverty activists marched west across Carlton Street, north on Yonge Street and west along Wellesley Street waving placards and wearing ‘Raise the Rates’ armbands to deliver a message to the McGuinty government at the Macdonald Block on Bay Street, saying that they will not sit idle while people in poor communities are under attack.

“Dalton McGuinty by comparison (to Harris) is a simpering little wimp,” said John Clarke just before the group left Allan Gardens. “You mobilize a movement on the streets that is powerful and determined, and he will shit his pants.”

The rally was reminiscent of the struggles during the Great Depression, when thousands of unemployed gathered in Allan Gardens to ask for relief and jobs.

“And they fought hard for over a decade,” said Gaetan Heroux of OCAP.

AJ Withers of DAMN 2025, a cross disability organization, said that one in five people are on welfare because of a disability related issue, but it can take months or years trying to qualify for ODSP benefits. So it’s important, she said, that the Special Diet Allowance be given to all social assistance recipients.

The Macdonald Block went on lockdown after the activists reached the sidewalk outside the building, even though it was secured by a line of police, with additional support on horseback.

“They don’t want to hear from the people in this city about their shameful welfare policies and the homeless people who are starving in this city every day,” said OCAP organizer Kelly Bentley.

As a hospital worker, Michael Hurley told the crowd that nutrition is key to keeping people well, especially for people with medical conditions who need a special diet. “To cancel that diet is cruel and will send them into hospitals at cost of $1,000 a day,” said Hurley of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

Even the fifty-five grade seven and eight students from City View Alternative School, who participated in the rally and march, know that a single person can’t survive on $585 a month.

Hurley acknowledged that CUPE hasn’t been doing enough on poverty issues, but pledged to deepen and intensify the fight against the “anti-poor people politics” of the McGuinty government.

In the northwest corner of Toronto, the Jane-Finch community has been struggling with poverty for decades.

“We have the highest denial rates for the Special Diet Allowance in the city of Toronto,” said Butterfly of the Jane-Finch Action Against Poverty.

“Yet we have the highest need for it.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.